How do you end America’s longest war that is an abject failure? No, not Afghanistan. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the day Richard Nixon launched the “War on Drugs.” And now, four decades later, it would be impossible to invent a more complete failure.
About $1 trillion has been spent on the war. Millions of citizens who pose no threat to anyone have been incarcerated in prison. Some 2.3 million now overcrowd America’s prisons–25 percent of whom have been arrested for nonviolent drug crimes.
Our neighbors to the south–Mexico and Colombia–are being torn about by gang violence and corruption. In Afghanistan, where our soldiers risk their lives, fully one-third to one-half of the entire economy is generated by the opium and heroin trade. All of this is in reaction to nonviolent acts that were not even crimes a century ago.
Yet despite this, drugs are just as available and cheaper than they were 40 years ago. As the U.S. drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, concluded: “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and the drug problem is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”
And the war’s casualties are mounting. The war on drugs turned, early on, into a new Jim Crow offensive against people of color. Although whites abuse drugs at higher rates than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of whites for drug offensives. Millions have been deprived of the right to vote for being convicted of nonviolent crimes. Hundreds of thousands have died and millions suffered because the drug war made treating addiction as a public health problem more difficult.
Now the state fiscal crisis is forcing states–even states as conservative as Texas–to empty overcrowded prisons and seek alternatives to incarceration. Yet the war goes on, the money is wasted, the violence and corruption escalates, and more lives are ruined.
In a new report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy calls for admitting that the war is a failure and turning instead to dealing with drugs as a public health problem.
I have spent decades talking with young men and women about the perils of drugs, in classrooms, in church basements, in prisons and jails and on the street. The scourge of drugs is destructive of lives and of hope. But so, too, is the war against drugs.
We must use the 40th anniversary of a failed war to call that war into question. What if we treated drug addiction like alcohol addiction as a public health problem? Marijuana accounts for one-half of all drug arrests in the U.S.; decriminalizing it would save millions that could be used to treat addicts rather than arrest kids. Alternatives to incarceration should be preferred for those who pose no threat to others.
Harsh mandatory and minimum sentences should be repealed. Why not take drug addiction out of the criminal justice system and treat it in the public health system? It surely would be better to spend the money not on locking people up, but on clinics that might treat their illnesses.
Ending the “War on Drugs” doesn’t mean we abandon the effort to regulate them, to teach children of their dangers, or to treat those who are hooked.
But it does mean we don’t waste millions more lives and billions more dollars on a war that cannot be won.
The drug war has been waged by both parties. Politicians have postured tough on crime, competing to invent the harshest punishments. Money was no object. An entire prison complex–with powerful private interests–has grown up to warehouse the prisoners of the war. But now, 40 years later, isn’t it time to put aside the posturing, and have a fundamental debate about alternatives to this failed war?